Gabriella Grimes showcases the vastness of queer identity highlighting that “it’s safe to be this way”

The Philadelphia-based illustrator and artist’s work provides countless queer people with validation they can’t find elsewhere.

15 September 2020

Gabriella Grimes may not have a formal art education, but there is no doubt that their work packs an almighty punch. Possessing the distinct influence of anime, manga and manhwa, their work can lead a viewer to believe it may centre on the child-friendly associations of those genres. But Gabriella has a different intention for their work and, as a response to these presumptions, started painting more erotic artwork to push back. “I want my colourful and joyful illustrations to be consumed by teenagers and adults!” they add on the matter.

Now based in Philadelphia, Gabriella spent most of their life in the Bronx, New York. Experiencing rocky times there, the artist spent time in a shelter in East Harlem after their family became homeless when Gabriella was 17, and endured a horrible time at school rife with non-stop racism and queerphobia. “I became horribly depressed,” they recall of the experience, “and almost dropped out of high school when I was in and out of the psych ward.” In time, their mum managed to get the young illustrator into homeschooling with the help of a school aide and, in turn, they went on to study at Hunter College where they pursued a degree in music with sociology and Africana studies.

Throughout it all Gabriella upheld a creative practice, starting with watercolours and abstract paintings with a peppering of “bad manga art” in the mix too. “That’s what you do as a young artist who likes anime and manga,” they confess. Eventually, they decided to take their artwork more seriously, spending hours after hours studying the human anatomy and various painting techniques and in turn, perfecting their painting practice. It wasn’t even until a couple of years ago that Gabriella started working in the digital realm. When their brother gave them a drawing tablet as a birthday present, Gabriella found they were “able to make sense of art concepts that [they] couldn’t understand with pencil and paper.”

Though they loved working with watercolours, Gabriella continues, “digital art changed my life.” Adapting quickly to this new way of working, Gabriella honed the aesthetic that we know and love as their's today. Sultry, muted hues of browny purples are carefully contoured, then shaded with the illustrator’s precise hand. Eyes are an important element in their work to get right: “For me, it’s not where they’re looking but how they look,” they say on the matter. They tend to paint red eyes without pupils, leaving space above or below the iris where there’s a distinct white of the eyes around the eyelid or lower last line.


Gabriella Grimes (Copyright © Gabriella Grimes, 2020)

By contrast, eggs are also a recurring subject in their work. “It’s just fun for me!” Gabriella says on the enjoyment of depicting said eggs. There may not be a rationale behind the motif, but the illustrator can’t help but find their brain telling them to draw an egg; “and I just do it.” In this highly original style, Gabriella also explores topics that are prevalent to them. They talk us through one artwork in particular titled Good Morning which proved to be “a really stressful experience” for the illustrator. An incredibly detailed digital painting, the image depicts a couple sharing a whimsical bathroom selfie moment (there is also an egg t-shirt featured as well of course.)

But the stress didn’t arise from the intricacy of the work however, it was due to a wave of backlash regarding the couple in the image. The people in the painting are a trans lesbian and her transmasc bi boyfriend. “People got really angry with me for showing a lesbian dating a transmasc person who uses a label like boyfriend,” says Gabriella. “It was painful dealing with people’s binary thinking and transphobia, especially as a non-binary lesbian who wants gender affirming surgery and maybe HRT at some point. I don’t want to shy away from showing how vast and diverse queerness is, and show people that this relationship doesn’t have to make sense to them or be relatable to them in order for them to respect it.”

With each backlash they get, there is an equal amount of affirmation coming from those who feel validated by the work. Gabriella’s practice showcases and celebrates the unapologetic vastness of queer identity, highlighting the fact that there are a lot of queer people who identify in ways that don’t make sense to a lot of others. Gabriella finally goes on to say: “They’re afraid of talking about themselves and their experiences because of how mean people can be. I’m happy to show these through my paintings and give people validation that they can’t find elsewhere. ‘It’s safe to be this way’ is what I want to say with this painting, and I think I got the message across.”

GalleryGabriella Grimes (Copyright © Gabriella Grimes, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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